From Contempt to Content: Leaving Lies Behind

I love the Desert Fathers. In the solitude of the wilderness, they were anything but alone and isolated. They learned to abide in communion with Jesus and with his Body the Church. Through their spiritual combat, they systematically eliminated from their lives all forms of hiding and escape, and discovered the joy of living in the present moment with God.

In the 500s, in the desert of Gaza, there lived a truly wise monk named Dorotheus. His writings reveal a deep understanding of the human heart. Among other things, he describes our tendency to hold others in contempt, and offers a path to becoming content. It is the path of humility and truth, a path that leads us away from our pride and our lies.

Last time I shared about our human skill of storytelling, both in its greatness and in its pitfalls.

Dorotheus describes how the devil hijacks our gift of storytelling. The devil is the father of lies. He works by division, fragmentation, and isolation. In our storytelling capacity (great as it is) he finds fertile ground for sowing lies about God, self, and others. He leads us on a path that winds its way from unease to judgment to outright contempt.

Dorotheus describes a threefold progression of the lies the devil sows in us: from our thoughts to our words to our deeds.

First, the devil sows lies in our thoughts. He lures us out of the present moment and into fantasy thinking. Then comes the “if only…” train of thought. We begin telling ourselves the story that we would be so much less miserable and so much more content if only we had this or that pleasure; if only we didn’t have to be doing this present unpleasant task; if only we weren’t locked into this present relationship; etc.

Regarding God, we can easily begin hearing the whispered story that he is a cruel taskmaster who constantly makes demands of us, a fun-sucking God who steals all our joy away, an unfaithful God whose promises won’t be enough for us.

Regarding our neighbor, we begin conjecturing, filling in the gaps to tell a story about what we do not really know. Dorotheus shares anecdotes of many monks whose insecurity or jealousy or judgment led them into this pitfall – such as the monk who noticed that a brother was absent from prayer on Good Friday and began fabricating the story that the missing monk had been in the garden eating figs instead of fasting and praying. It turned out the brother couldn’t possibly have been in the garden because he was abroad on an errand!

The evil one loves to shade the stories in our mind until, little by little, we grow into contempt of our neighbor, contempt of ourselves, contempt of God.

Then comes phase two: lies in our speech. We do not know the full facts about our neighbor, but that doesn’t stop us from telling the story anyway, filling in the gaps without even realizing we are doing it. How easy it is to spread gossip and start rumors! Did you ever notice how we tend to go down to a whisper when we tell stories about others? Does that make it any less damaging?

Dorotheus also describes the lies we tell about ourselves in our speech. We manipulate the facts or conceal the truth to avoid blame. We selectively highlight partial truths to present ourselves as better than we really are.

I think it is rare indeed that someone tells the humble and candid truth, without any shading or skewing or selective narrating. I look back on past emails or writing, in which I thought (at the time) I was being totally objective, just reporting the facts. I begin noticing moments in which I started editorializing or injecting my own interpretation. It’s a very human thing to do!

As an administrator, I have definitely learned how important it is to gather more facts or to listen carefully to all parties involved. Isn’t it interesting how there is always more to the story?

Thirdly, Dorotheus describes how the devil tempts us to lie in our deeds. The two-tongued father of lies wants us to lead a double life. He who masquerades as an angel of light wants us to pretend to be someone we are not, keeping parts of ourselves in the shadows. Think of the damage this has caused in the Church – leaders pretending to be holy and all the while secretly sinning and covering up the evil.

As I mentioned last time, the full truth of our human story is complex. Jesus was sinless; each of us stands in need of redemption. When we allow parts of ourselves to remain in shadows, we begin hiding those parts of ourselves from others and from self and from God. We then become slaves of shame, and become easy prey for the endgame of the devil: discouragement and despair.

When parts of ourselves remain unknown, they remain unloved and unredeemed. The devil can then weave his webs at will, tempting us to tell dark stories about ourselves, stories in which there is no longer any hope.

But there is always hope, especially where there is humility and a willingness to be vulnerable with God and others. If we are open to it, God will help us seek and find a safe community of friends, to whom we can bare our souls and be known in the whole of our complex story. This was definitely a step that I needed in my own life, and began taking a few years ago. It has helped me, slowly but surely, to shed my shame – and others have noticed a difference. I continue on the long journey from contempt to contentment, but God is with me as I pray to resist the devil’s wiles.

Dorotheus shares some profound wisdom. The devil is real, and the combat is real. Thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Stories We Tell

We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Our brains are tirelessly at work (even while we sleep!), putting the pieces of our life into a story that will help us make sense out of it. Storytelling is so much a part of being human that most of us don’t even notice when we are doing it. We easily jump to a conclusion from one or two bits of information: a colleague yawning during our presentation, a friend not returning a text message, a request from our boss for an urgent meeting, or a member of the opposite sex greeting us with a smile. Our mind begins spinning stories, true or not. It takes a disciplined detective to remain open to the evidence and not get misled by the red herrings. Indeed, one of the hardest human things to do is to abide in that in-between place in which we do not yet know the whole story, and be content to watch and wait.

Perhaps that is why I was so aggravated by the ending of the hit TV show Lost – do you remember it? For so many of us, it captivated our hearts, only to leave us unsatisfied, irritated, or downright frustrated.

While I was in Rome working on my doctorate, a group of us watched a couple of episodes each week. We laughed; we shed tears; we waited with bated breath for the next week’s episodes. When the finale came out, I prepared a steak dinner on the roof of our residence and we had a lovely evening – lovely, that is, until we watched the final episode. One of my friends was actually cursing and swearing as he hurled his ottoman across the room – mostly for dramatic effect. But his theatrics told the story of what our hearts were feeling at the time. We were deeply dissatisfied with the lack of resolution. We felt used, manipulated, and cast aside. How could someone spin a story, leave so many enticing hints and fragments, and then leave so many parts unresolved?

It was the best of TV shows; it was the worst of TV shows. It was so amazing because it was storytelling within storytelling. I believe it was the flashbacks that made the show especially great. Each character had a deeply believable, profoundly complex, and totally human story. Little by little, fragments of their life emerged. It was easy to empathize with them, to feel their heartache and heartbreak, to cheer them on in their courageous moments of growth, or to cringe with disappointment when they took steps into the shadows. As the episodes progressed, the pieces of the past of each character, the sum total of the things done to them and the things they freely did, all served as warp and weft, forming the fabric of one gripping life story. It was beautiful.

I suppose that Lost suffered the fate of so many American TV shows – the curse of popularity. So long as a TV show can somehow be profitable, new episodes will continue to be generated, regardless of the quality. Lost found some new life by introducing new characters and by going even more in depth in the stories of some of the old standbys. But the plot twists of the show itself, while thrilling and enticing, eventually became its demise. In its final seasons, Lost left cliffhanger after cliffhanger – and just kept moving on to the next cliffhanger, without ever circling back for resolution. In the end, we felt like the woman who keeps going back to her abusive lover. Surely this time it will be different! In the end, like an abusive lover, the show did not deliver on its empty promises. And still, we loved it.

I’ve done some fascinating reading lately: Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, and The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson. While I don’t endorse 100% of what they say, all three books inspired much meditation and reflection. All three describe this deeply human quality of storytelling. We are storytellers by our very nature. Without stories, we cannot make sense out of life.

But there is a shadowy side to our storytelling. Not all of our stories are true stories. In our unwillingness to watch and wait in hope, we can begin telling lies about ourselves, about others, and about God.

I know for myself that I have often fluctuated back and forth between one of two extremes: self-exaltation and self-shaming.  In my moments of self-exaltation, I deny or minimize my unseemly behaviors or my personal problems. Puffed up with pride, I begin relying on myself and growing in a false confidence. In those moments, I easily excuse behaviors in myself that I totally dislike in others. I put on a mask and project a version of myself that I would like others to accept. I suspect I am not alone in these tendencies.

In the present age of social media, there is an ever greater temptation to tell a well-crafted and glamorous story about ourselves – whether or not it is true – and to compare our story to the story of others. All of these self-exalting stories are cardboard cutouts, like the filming stage of an old a spaghetti western. Then come those moments in which the truth knocks over our façade, and we are terrified of being discovered for the fraud that we (think we) are.

The other side I often experience is telling a story of self-shaming. Then my survival instincts kick in: fight or flight or freeze. At my worst, I begin blaming others or become demanding or demeaning. More commonly, I withdraw into isolation and coping, or I avoid anything that feels challenging, for fear of failure. I know I am not the only one who does these things.

The problem with both versions of storytelling (self-exaltation and self-shaming) is that they are highly selective. We are taking only parts of our story, and distorting the whole. Our lives our complex. Like the characters on Lost, we make many mistakes AND we make heroic choices amidst difficult circumstances. Evil things are done to us AND we freely choose to cooperate in evil.  We are victims of tragedy AND we are given opportunities for freedom and redemption. We behave in ugly or hurtful ways AND we show great sensitivity and compassion.

The bigger story for each of us is the story of a redeemed sinner who is in the process of being sanctified by Jesus. Every part of our story matters. Every part needs to be touched by his healing grace. When our entire story, in every detail, gets united with the saving story of Jesus, we begin to discover who we really are – and it is far more beautiful and more worth living than any pretend story we’ve ever told about ourselves. We can be known and loved in our story. Then, on the Day of Judgment, when our merciful Savior opens the Book of Life and proclaims our entire story for all to hear, all will praise God for the amazing story Jesus has told in and through us.

The Gift of Tears

Most of us dread the shedding of tears – particularly in front of other people. There are many reasons why we hold back. We don’t want to feel weak or vulnerable. We fear rejection. We fear losing control, perhaps even fear that if we start sobbing, we will never stop. Whether we realize it or not, we probably learned these lessons from word or example in family life. Whether spoken or unspoken, it was against the rules. The shedding of tears comes so spontaneously and naturally to little children. Then, rather than being guided and directed and nurtured, it comes to be seen as a threat.

I have come to learn that tears can be a precious gift from God.

I am by no means the first to make this observation. Many authors in contemporary charismatic circles talk about “the gift of tears” as a charism (a “spiritual gift” of the Holy Spirit along the lines of tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, etc.). True, there are individuals who experience weeping as an outward manifestation of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. This was all the rage in sixteenth-century Spain – to the point that authentic mystics like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, or Ignatius of Loyola had to warn against the faking of tears as a false expression of piety, even showing off. That risk is still there for some today, but I much more frequently find a false toughness that holds back tears.

More commonly over the centuries, tears are an expression of repentance and conversion, opening us up to love God and neighbor with fuller freedom. Examples abound in Scripture. King David weeps over his sins (Psalm 51). The prophet Jeremiah allows his eyes to stream day and night over the great ruination which overwhelms God’s people (Jeremiah 14). Nehemiah’s tears over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem move the heart of the Persian King Artaxerxes. This pagan ruler is so touched with empathy that he sends Nehemiah with full funding and an armed force to go to Jerusalem to fight and rebuild (Nehemiah 1-2).

In the New Testament there is the marvelous story of Saint Peter. The very moment he denies Jesus a third time, Peter experiences a gaze of mercy from him (Luke 22). The Lord turns to look upon him with full knowledge AND full love. Peter knows that he is known and knows that he is loved. He goes out and weeps bitterly. According to many Christian legends and stories, it was by no means the last time Peter would weep. His tears went on to captivate the imagination and heart of Christian mystics and artists for centuries.

What a journey of lifelong conversion Peter undergoes! From the beginning he is drawn to follow the Lord Jesus. He leaves his nets behind. He believes from day one, and never falters in his faith, even when he repeatedly falters in loving Jesus. He denies Jesus; his actions show us time and again that his understanding is only partial. The growth is prolonged and slow. Even after the Resurrection, when Peter joins Jesus on the seashore, there is still much conversion needed. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him – offering three renewals of love to the man who three times denied him. But there is more in the Greek. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – that self-emptying, sacrificial love that Jesus showed on the Cross. Peter answers that he loves Jesus with philia – brotherly love.  Jesus is inviting Peter to confess the full truth of his present condition. There is almost a sense of playfulness about it, certainly gentleness. Jesus is not disappointed in Peter; rather, he is encouraging him, inviting him farther and farther along the path of conversion. He doesn’t expect Peter to get there all at once, yet he speaks the truth to him with love. He encourages Peter that he will one day be strong enough to lay down his life with a full agape love. For now, Peter is not yet ready, and that is okay. Jesus just invites him “Follow me.” The rest will come in due time.

I am guessing Peter had tears in his eyes at that moment as well. It is easy to imagine him shedding tears at all the key moments of his conversion. The mercy of God unleashes our tears, and our tears unleash his mercy. It’s a wonderful, virtuous cycle.

The Desert Fathers, those mighty monks of the early centuries, often discussed tears as a marvelous gift of God. They saw tears as a powerful remedy against the evil spirit of acedia – one of the subtlest and most formidable foes we will ever face.

[If you are unfamiliar with the sin of acedia I highly recommend reading Fr. Jean-Charles Nault’s book The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times]

The deadly sin of acedia is difficult to translate. Calling it “sloth” or “laziness” can be misleading. That is just one of many possible manifestations. Indeed, in today’s world this sin is more likely to manifest itself in boredom or busyness or burnout. Our restless hearts resist staying present in the moment, seeking any alternative than abiding in God’s presence. How sad indeed to be repulsed by divine goodness and prefer our self-created madhouse of busyness and comforts, even when that madhouse becomes an unbearable hell for us. Yet how common to our human experience!

Literally, acedia is from the Greek a + kēdos – “not caring” or “not feeling.” John Climacus describes its first steps: a numbness in our soul, a forgetfulness of heavenly promises, and an aversion to the present moment as to a great burden. How many today, I wonder, are in the throes this spiritual sickness?

The Desert Fathers fought it. Their era was very much like our own. They saw the decline and fall of a once great civilization. The Greeks and Romans, plunged into pleasures, had worn themselves out. The early monks discovered that tears are a saving remedy for acedia.

First of all, our tears allow us –  like King David and like Saint Peter – to be truly humble and recognize our need for a savior. In our tears, we confess that we cannot save ourselves. Like a child in the presence of its parents, we are crying out in our need. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and delights in those who are willing to become like little children.

Secondly, tears unthaw our frozen hearts and allow us to feel again. They lead us out of our numbness and free us to be vulnerable and dependent. Fr. Nault, in his book, offers the image of our falling tears carving out a notch in our stony hearts – a notch through which God’s mercy can pour into our sin-sick soul.

Evagrius was one of the wisest of those desert monks. We can close with his words about the gift of tears aiding us in our spiritual struggles: “Sadness is hard to bear and acedia is hard to resist – but tears shed in God’s presence are stronger than both.”